The gentlemen's club has proved a durable thread in the tweedy fabric of English society. It was born some 300 years ago in London, and even today, as it wobbles in the maelstrom of a swiftly changing world, its numbers gradually dwindling, it somehow holds onto its formidable dignity and mystique. Like all tradition-bound British institutions, it is dead set on survival. Most of the predominantly palazzo-style buildings that house these exclusive, time-honored fraternities are located in the West End, along St. James's Street and Pall Mall--an area still fondly referred to by blue-blooded brethren as "Clubland." At night, in the glow of original eighteenth century gaslights, these grand, anonymous edifices--described by one astute observer as "mausoleums of masculine inactivity"--exude mystery. Their tall windows often reveal a gray-haired figure creeping about in a dimly lit room, ghostly shadows playing on portrait-lined walls. The passerby is suddenly gripped by age-old images: snoring octogenarians in leather armchairs, mahogany tables supporting smoldering cigars and glasses of Port, stork-legged servants balancing silver trays, ruddy-complected curmudgeons nicknamed "Stinky" and "Piggy" mourning the demise of the Empire, an antique clock ticking away against deafening silence.
The amazing thing is that all these blatantly stereotypical perceptions are absolutely correct. While London's gents' clubs have grudgingly ceded to a few alterations over the decades, their character--and most of the platitudes that go with it--remains stalwartly intact.
The English, of course, have always been besotted with the idea of clubs. The genesis of this trait is difficult to pin down. But Anthony Lejeune has a couple of theories, as well he should. An old-guard clubman, longtime member of two of London's most venerable strongholds (Brooks's and White's) and a trustee at the Beefsteak Club, he is also a distinguished journalist and author of two books on the rarefied province of gentlemen's clubs. "I suppose it had something to do with Empire," he muses in an accent so clipped and patrician that it almost sounds like a foreign tongue. "I mean, if you're stuck out in the remote parts of India, you've got to create a club where you can go to. Another reason is that if you were going to gamble, it was highly desirable to know whom you were gambling with." In fact, gambling was the raison d'être at several of London's early male bastions.
Most of the clubs began in the late eighteenth century as coffee houses, gathering places where the politically like-minded could harangue about been the admittance of women as guests. Policies regarding female visitors vary dramatically. The Traveller's has opened a separate dining room for women who wish to have a meal there. Buck's built a ladies annex, the mandatory entrance for females arriving for lunch. The Savile Club offers candlelit dinners for members and their wives every Friday night. The Reform Club has really gone off the deep end, allowing women to become full members, while that old bulwark White's doesn't allow them under any circumstances, period.
government, read, swap, gossip, imbibe and play cards. Their names were often curious: The Lying Club, the Odd Fellows Club, the Humbugs. While these budding institutions increasingly regarded themselves as the embodiment of high civilization, many of their activities bordered on infantile. At the Golden Fleece, the members gave each other such giggle-inducing sobriquets as Sir Talkative Dolittle, Sir Timothy Addlepate, Sir Boozy Prate-all and Sir Nicholas Ninny Sip-all. A rather notorious clubman named Hughie Drummond, member of the erstwhile Pelican's at the turn of this century, was accused of having thrown a boar's head at a peer of the realm, which sent him crashing into the fireplace. "Nonsense!" Drummond protested indignantly. "It wasn't me. Not me at all. I've thrown nothing but jelly all evening."
As time went on, gentlemen's clubs became decidedly more subdued, their members trying their damnedest to behave like...well, gentlemen. There is still the random outbreak of juvenile delinquency. But oh, for the good old days of unbridled spontaneity, when boys could jolly well be boys, when Britain's finest young men whiled away afternoons by playing golf shots from the steps of one club to the next and the Duke of Devonshire whacked the shins of fellow denizens of Brooks's with the lead-filled end of his walking stick. Back then, no respectable woman set foot in Clubland, dangerous turf where footpads (muggers) lurked and high-born cads sat at windows and ogled anything remotely female that walked by.
Many aristocrats became so caught up in club life that they forgot they had a home. An elderly member of Brooks's once told Lejeune that he had discovered his grandmother's diary, wherein she grieved, "We have now been married exactly a year, in which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr. Brooks's Club."
Certainly no stauncher advocate of the male refuge ever existed than Dr. Johnson, the immortal author and lexicographer, who pronounced, "A man is good for nothing unless he is clubbable."
By far the most revered (and oldest) of London's gentlemen's clubs is White's, founded as a chocolate shop in 1693 by an Italian, Francesco Bianco, who had changed his name to Francis White. At the outset, White's was primarily a gambling hub, its members habitually engaging in high-stakes card games and obsessive betting. The least difference of opinion invariably spawned a wager; a book for recording particulars was always laid open on the hall table. One day a man collapsed outside the club's door. Odds were immediately given and taken as to whether or not he was dead.
Save for the odd spirited poker game, the rambunctious gambling sessions that once ignited the inner recesses of Clubland have been replaced by quiet games of bridge and snooker.
The gentlemen's club has evolved into the ultimate sanctuary for a good smoke. But there was a time, in the mid-Victorian era, when tobacco was taboo. In 1866, a momentous smoking dispute erupted. The Prince of Wales, a devoted cigar buff, expressed his desire to join White's, subsequent to which a meeting was held to better define the club's smoking policy. The younger members proposed that smoking be allowed in the drawing room, a motion bit-terly opposed by their elders, who triumphed. The future King Edward VII was so miffed that he rarely used the club. The final in-sult came when he was scolded (by a servant, no less!) for lighting up one day. He stormed out, taking 20 percent of the membership with him. Eventually, he helped to establish a new club, the Marlborough, where smoke wafted freely throughout.
In Clubland's glorious past, it was the fashion for men to join more than one club. The current economy precludes such luxury for most, but Anthony Lejeune maintains that multiple membership is still the ideal. "You need to belong to at least three," he observes. "You need the Beefsteak to go to for lunch, Pratt's to go to for dinner and somewhere to sleep in the afternoon--Brooks's has lovely bed pillows in the library."
A hallmark of London's male havens has been the loyal and long-term staff that serves them; continuity is cherished among clubmen. Alas, the hall porter, assuredly the most pivotal club servant--acting as a sort of butler who looks after guests and handles sundry urgencies--is no longer the permanent fixture he once was. With a trace of wistfulness, Lejeune recalls a particularly devoted hall porter: "Newman died about 10 years ago. He'd cycled up from Cambridge as a youth of 17 and became a page boy at Brooks's. He was there his whole life. And that, of course, is what you want, but it's extremely hard to achieve nowadays. When I first joined Brooks's 35 years ago, I found Newman reading the ID band on my stick on the hook in the hall. He didn't want to ask me my name. I thought that was awfully good."
Nothing else so completely reflects the fixed mind-set of Clubland than the food it features. Ultratraditional English dishes prevail. At Buck's, the menu revolves around what Capt. Peter Murison, the dapper and urbane club secretary, calls "nursery food"--lots of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and spotted dick and treacle tart. At the Traveller's Club, a dinner staple is roast saddle of hare with Port and chestnuts. At the Savile Club, the lunch special is an old favorite called Lancashire hot pot. Years ago, Pratt's borrowed cooks from the barracks of the Queen's Guard. Today, the clubs are inclined to hire young chefs straight out of culinary school, many of whom like to experiment and sneak in the occasional exotic delicacy. But the members will have none of it.
At the turn of the century, Clubland's golden age, there were more than 200 gentlemen's clubs in London. Many of the 40-odd remaining bastions find themselves clinging to life, now and then bending their ancient rules just to stay afloat. Only recently did Clubland accept credit cards ("those horrible bits of plastic," grimaces Captain Murison) as a means of payment. But the most earthshaking modification has The crumbling of club barriers regarding women has as much to do with changed attitudes among Britain's young men as it does with feminism. Indeed, a key impetus behind the admission of females has been to attract younger male members. Many of today's prospective club fellows are married to career women whose company they actually enjoy, at home and away. Fast receding is the era when men holed up at their clubs to flee the wife.
Quite simply, contemporary blue bloods don't feel the same passion for club life as their fathers. For one thing, they're too busy. Britain's recent recession sparked a new labor incentive; people began working harder. Even the upper crust could no longer afford their usual ritual: a long, three-Scotch lunch at the club followed by a snooze and a 4 o'clock return to the office to scribble a few notes before going home.
The decline in club usage is also attributable to modern technology. Faxes and computers have made it easier for men to stay at their country homes, rather than regularly commute to the city to do business. Although most gentlemen's clubs still offer bedrooms for members who wish to spend the night, vacancies are common.
But the most pressing concern in Clubland is the youth void. Laments Captain Murison, "The older chaps are falling off the perch and there isn't a sufficient number of new members to replace them." Intensely mindful of the challenge before them, the gents' clubs have launched a full-fledged campaign to recruit fresh blood. Enticements include substantially reduced subscription fees. At the Savile Club, for example, a mature London member pays £685 (about $1,095), while his under-31 counterpart pays only £245 (about $390). Adds Nicholas Storey, the club's good-humored, rosy-cheeked, 30-something secretary, "We also schedule events that would appeal to the younger set, such as blindfolded wine tastings and special dinners where young members are guaranteed that they'll dine with people their age."
Shorter waiting lists are another draw. In high-Victorian times, a candidate for membership had to bide his time for 20 years. Now the lists run from three months to eight years, and existing members are heartily encouraged to introduce their sons and other young gents as applicants.
While top-drawer lineage is certainly a plus when it comes to being considered for membership, it is no longer the acid test. Some of the clubs remain stiffly snooty about pedigree, but overall there has been a significant relaxation of social requirements since the days when only the bluest of blue bloods were deemed fit to enter the portals of Clubland.
In summing up the unwritten qualifications for membership at Buck's, Captain Murison says, "Well, a chap has to be the right sort [obviously, volumes can be read into that line], but basically we look to see if he is what we call a good egg." As an afterthought, he says with a grin, "As long as he doesn't eat his peas off his knife."
Storey, who has an impressive background in club management, firmly believes that the salvation of London's gentlemen's clubs lies in savvy administration. It used to be that many of the clubs were run by terribly tweedy codgers who juggled the books between pheasant shoots. "There are more and more trained professional people coming in to supervise the clubs now, because it's a business," says Storey. "They're finally getting smart about that."
The decreased popularity of gentlemen's clubs by no means suggests that the English have become less club-oriented. Heavens no! Clubs are simply taking on new forms. Socially charged mixed clubs, where the sexes merrily mingle, are a hot trend, springing up at such a rate that they may someday eclipse the traditional male bastions. About these upstarts, Lejeune sniffs, "They wear jeans and they do all the things that people are not supposed to do at their clubs--they do business and sign contracts and suck up to their agents. They're quite a different animal."
Different indeed. At the outrageously successful Groucho Club in Soho, a hangout for media types, from public relations executives to film producers, where the glitzy likes of Kevin Costner and Goldie Hawn have been welcomed in for a tipple despite their non-member status, where aspiring novelist Amanda Hemingway (no relation to Ernest) smokes gigantic cigars and the fetching female manager often wears low-cut black lace in the evenings, the mood is Bohemian-chic. At the posh, recently unveiled Monte's in Knightsbridge (see Cigar Aficionado, Spring 1996), the Art Deco motif complements the severely sophisticated, designer-labeled international members. Here, the tastes of the connoisseur are sated. Amenities include a gourmet restaurant with a famed French chef and a buzzing nightclub and an adjoining lavishly stocked cigar shop.
If there is one club that combines the best of two worlds--the deep tradition of the gents' clubs and the easy blending of the sexes, it is the Sloane Club. In its first incarnation, this tranquil retreat in the heart of Chelsea was for women only, established in 1922 for the use of distaff former officers of the armed forces. Today, after a massive restoration, the club invites both genders: some rooms are done in pastels while others are determinedly masculine, replete with rich oak paneling and well-endowed bookshelves. Redolent of gentility, this club has a membership that is 60 percent titled. There is a fondness for roasts carved from the trolley, and the attire leans heavily toward ascots and pearls. It's not unusual to see an impeccable woman asleep in an armchair, newspaper and sherry at her side--a refreshing twist on a classic tableau. As one new member confided to her daughter, "This is my bolt-hole from your father."
Clearly, London's burgeoning crop of new clubs offers great diversity. But for all their outward conformity, so do the traditional gentlemen's clubs. In fact, they are markedly individual, each priding itself in its singular qualities. Opines the redoubtable Lejeune, "You can, to a very considerable extent, judge a man's tastes, possibly even his character, by the club to which he belongs."
A tour of four august gents' preserves uncovers the real contrasts that exist in Clubland. The tour starts at the Traveller's, conceived to bring together distinguished globe-trotters. Founded in 1819, the club accepted as members only gentlemen who'd traveled at least 500 miles in a straight line from London. That requisite has since been expanded: now you must have visited four countries outside Europe and the United States. The sartorial membership is composed mainly of diplomats, foreign dignitaries, eminent war veterans and reputed travel writers. Pompous portraits of past club chairmen--bushy of brow and spruce of mustache--abound. The Traveller's, whose Pall Mall clubhouse is immense and regal, has an extremely formal and hushed atmosphere, perhaps partly due to the ardent reading that goes on there. The drawing room is chock-full of newspapers and periodicals, and upstairs there is a magnificent, well-tended library (one of the few in Clubland).
It's an entirely different scene at the more modest Savile Club, a chummy, egalitarian retreat founded in 1868 by gentlemen who sought to escape the oppressive tenor of traditional Victorian clubs. Here, animated conversation reigns supreme; raconteurs hold forth in a fireside area called the Sandpit. At the Savile, an out-of-work actor might find himself dining next to the chairman of a multinational corporation, and they'll get on swimmingly. The title of the club's official history says it all: "Hang Your Halo in the Hall."
Brooks's, on the other hand, is an archetypal London gents' club. Conjuring up a ducal country house, it contains a dramatic winding staircase, marble busts, vaulted ceilings, elaborate gilt-framed paintings of historic club gatherings, luscious molding, heavy burgundy drapery, forest-green leather chairs, a splendid wine cellar and the obligatory long mahogany rack in the foyer for the temporary storage of walking sticks and umbrellas. This is a particularly somnolent club, what with those fluffy bed pillows scattered about in the handsome library. One of the art objects on display is a bronze death mask of Napoleon, which rather sets the tone. Formed in 1764, Brooks's is profoundly rooted in ancestry. As many as eight generations of the same family have been members.
And then there is Buck's, the coziest of London's gentlemen's clubs. Tucked away in a small townhouse in Mayfair, it reeks of mildewed old money. The sofas are lumpy, the leather is cracked, the drapery is faded, the carpeting is threadbare, the floors are creaky--it all adds up to a mellow charm. Buck's was started after the First World War by a feisty officer named Herbert Buckmaster, who insisted that the mood at a club should be that of a private residence. He was still living upstairs when he was past 80, ruling with autocratic fervor. The current membership consists largely of businessmen, barristers and doctors, with a healthy sprinkling of royals. Prince Edward recently deigned to join, but not before sampling lunch. All Conservative prime ministers are made honorary members. Vintage engravings and photographs are neatly arranged on the walls, the most riveting image being that of the club's first president, in full military regalia. His name brilliantly captures the flavor of Clubland: Lt. Col. Lord Tweedmouth.
In the end, Buck's and its brothers might be consigned to the relic heap, cast aside by a public grown altogether weary of social stratification. Captain Murison is not optimistic. "I think that by the midpoint of the next century there'll be fewer clubs than there are now," he says.
But extinction seems unlikely. Remember what Churchill, in the face of doom, proclaimed to his countrymen. If he was right--if there will always be an England--then there will always be gentlemen's clubs.
Jolee Edmondson is a freelance writer based in Savannah, Georgia.